The International Criminal Court in The Hague has begun a preliminary hearing to determine whether Sudanese rebel leader Bahr Idriss Abu Garda must stand trial for war crimes. Abu Garda is charged with leading an attack against African Union peacekeepers in Darfur two years ago.
Bahr Idriss Abu Garda appeared in court Monday dressed in a gray suit and stripped tie instead of his familiar fighter's khaki and turban. Wearing glasses, he listened intently as the court officer read out the charges against him.
"Mr. Abu Garda jointly and with..forces under his control killed 12 …peacekeeping personnel and attempted to kill 8 peacekeeping personnel," a court official stated.
There are three counts in all: violence to life or murder, attacking peacekeeping personnel and property, and pillaging. They all stem from a September 2007 attack on an African Union peacekeeping base in the contested Darfur region of Sudan.
Twelve peacekeepers were killed and another eight wounded in the assault that prosecutors say the 46 year old Abu Garda helped lead. Two other rebel commanders have also been accused of the crimes. But Abu Garda, leader of the Justice and Equality Movement, is the only one who has voluntarily appeared in court. Prosecutors are considering issuing arrest warrants for the other two.
The pretrial hearing is expected to last two weeks. The judges were careful to point out that this is not a trial and that no determination of guilt or innocence will be made. But prosecutors, defense lawyers and representatives of the victims will have the opportunity to make their case. Judges will then have 60 days to decide whether to proceed to trial.
Abu Garda's lawyer says the rebel leader had nothing to do with the attack and is confident he will not face trial. But prosecutors say he was one of the commanders of some one thousand men in a convoy of 30 heavily armed vehicles that attacked the Haskanita military base in North Darfur.
The African union peacekeepers, now working with a UN force, have not been able to end the region's fighting. An estimated 300,000 people have been killed and another 2.7 million displaced since the conflict began six years ago.
The ICC has issued three arrest warrants over the Darfur conflict to date, including one against Sudanese President Omar al-Beshir earlier this year. But the Khartoum government dismisses the court's jurisdiction and refuses to cooperate in any way, making Abu Garda's case the first at this court to deal with Darfur.